Lawyers and Publicists Need Their Own Emissions Category—Call It ‘Scope X’

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For an invisible, odorless gas, carbon dioxide turns out to be somewhat straightforward to track.

Businesses now routinely report their carbon dioxide emissions in three categories: Scope 1 for the direct burning of fossil fuels in generators, facilities, and vehicles; Scope 2 for purchased energy, such as electricity or heat; and Scope 3, the most complicated, for supply chains and customers.

For as much CO₂ as that system covers, it's still incomplete. Many businesses pollute very little themselves but do much to aid and abet the emissions of others—think public-relations and advertising firms, lobbyists, consultancies, law firms, and other professional services. These businesses certainly contribute to carbon pollution by promoting high-emissions activities, and yet there's still no way to quantify their responsibility for the damage caused by climate change.

Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of the U.K. PR firm Futerra, has one idea. She wrote an op-ed over the summer calling for universal recognition of these so-called “Scope X” emissions. 

Since the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015, Futerra has issued annual statements about the carbon makeup of its clients and signed up some 300 other PR firms around the world to do the same. The firm’s direct emissions footprint is "smaller than a kindergarten," she said in an interview. Last year, according to its own reporting, about 1% of its annual revenue came from polluting industries. 

This kind of transparency would be an essential part of Scope X calculation and reporting. Here's another: Influence Map, a U.K. research nonprofit, has spent the last several years developing a methodology to score the effect companies have on climate policy, for better or for worse. Climate lobbying—or “Scope 4” emissions, as Influence Map once labeled them—is graded on an A to F scale that reflects a company’s “readiness for a transition to low carbon policy globally.”

“Just because it can’t be measured in tons of CO₂ that easily doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted,” said Dylan Tanner, the group’s executive director and co-founder.

One obstacle to Influence Map’s work is the broader lack of transparency in the influence-peddling businesses, Futerra and its partners in reporting aside. Lobbying disclosures are insufficient, and U.S. campaign finance law allows money to flow anonymously to groups whose activities are opaque, Tanner said.

Lately there's been reason to believe that PR and the other professional services will soon receive their due scrutiny for supporting the fossil-fuel economy. The most potent sign of change is the introduction of a climate-disclosure framework in finance, the ultimate professional service. Banks have come under increased pressure in recent years for providing capital to large polluters in energy, industry, and beyond.

New tools have emerged just in recent months to help them evaluate and disclose their impact underwriting pollution. Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and Citi have all signed on to the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, which in August released draft standards for reporting how loans and investments affect the low-carbon transition. The latest corporate climate survey by the research nonprofit CDP has a special section asking financial services providers to spell out how lending, asset management, and asset ownership may relate to pollution.

The Science Based Targets initiative, a collaboration among several leading groups, this fall published guidance for banks, investors, and insurers. The latest count of companies with climate plans approved by SBTi—a touchstone for climate progress—numbers 526 businesses across all kinds of industries, with hundreds more plans in the works. How many PR firms work with the Science Based Targets initiative? Among the top 40 of the largest global firms identified by PRovoke Media, exactly one turns up in the SBTi database: Brunswick Group, which advises more than a quarter of the FTSE 100 companies.

If lenders and traders can come up with a formula for how their work translates into greenhouse gas emissions, then it seems reasonable to suggest that advertisers, consultancies, law firms, and the rest give it a try. At least that’s what Jamie Henn, director of the nonprofit Fossil Free Media, has in mind. His Clean Creatives campaign aims to push PR and advertising firms’ work with polluting companies into the sunlight. These firms present “as if they’re changing when they really aren’t," he said, "and that’s more insidious than climate denial."

Fleshing out a Scope X emissions score might be helpful for investors, as the other Scopes have been. It might also help guide companies with enormous marketing budgets away from firms who make money promoting the interests of clients burning up the world's future. Bringing the fossil-fuel machinery to a halt requires stopping all its parts, including the catchy slogans that make it all seem OK.

Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

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